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Tornadoes back on top through hard work

Markus Black returned to Booker to 'shake the foundation' of the boys basketball program. He's done so this season.

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Markus Black was done watching Booker High athletics flail, especially the boys basketball team.

“We want to test our opponent’s mettle every night,” Black said. “We’ll see if you can hang.”

The Tornadoes won a state title in 2006-2007, the program’s fifth overall, but had been stuck in neutral since. Black was the point guard on that championship team. He never forgot how hard his former coach, Derrick Krice, worked that team. It’s that hard work that led to success, Black is sure of it. So when he heard whispers in the community about Booker High, of people trashing the school for failing to develop athletes the way it once did, failing to instill proper discipline and work ethic into its players, Black knew something had to be done, whether the whispers were accurate or not.

He applied for the school’s junior varsity head coaching job four years ago, and got it. Two years later, he was promoted to head coach of the varsity team. Now, he’s changed the landscape of Booker boys basketball, or as he says, he shook the foundation. The Tornadoes are 16-2 as of Jan. 17 and ranked fourth in Class 6A by MaxPreps.

Johnnie Williams IV muscles his way to the basket. He scored 32 points against Riverview.
Johnnie Williams IV muscles his way to the basket. He scored 32 points against Riverview.

“I challenged them from Day One,” Black said. “I wanted to see what they were made of, both on and off the court. I challenged them as young men. I pushed them to the brink.”

Black used the sweltering Sarasota summers to his advantage, having his players work outside to see who really wanted to be there. The Tornadoes ran close to four miles a day, Black said, as part of what he called a “boot camp” that also included weight and plyometric exercises. The first week was rough for everyone, Black said, but players slowly got accustomed to the workload, and it's paying dividends now, with Booker prepared both physically and mentally to play full games at 100% effort.

Last year, the team (18-9) returned to the postseason and reached the regional semifinals before losing to Sebring High. It wasn’t how Booker wanted to finish the year, but it was the start of something great. Black thanks that team for showing him where the program still needed to improve.

Then, 2017-2018 happened. Watching the Tornadoes play rival Riverview High Jan. 15, you would think the program was never less than dominant; the crowd was massive and raucous. In a back-and-forth game, Booker took command late in the fourth quarter for a 74-66 win. It was their third win against the Rams this season, after dropping two contests to them last season.

Jordan Curtis holds his pose after hitting a three-pointer against Riverview.
Jordan Curtis holds his pose after hitting a three-pointer against Riverview.

Jordan Curtis, a transfer from Riverview, is a big part of Booker’s success. The senior guard scored 21 points against his former team and has steadied the offense all season. To Curtis, the Tornadoes’ season shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. He expected them to be great, and it’s part of the reason he transferred.

"I've known coach Markus since I was ... I don't even know how old. Like a fetus, I guess. (Laughs). It's nice to play for a coach like that. He really inspires me. His attitude and his grit, the way he motivates our team, it's led to a great experience."

Black said the reason for the jump in success from last season to this one is chemistry. Without going into specifics, he said last year’s team had some off-the-court issues that weren’t resolved until late in the season. Dealing with those problems prevented Black and his staff from implementing many “X’s and O’s” coaching tips. This year’s squad didn’t have those issues. They hang out more outside of basketball, he said. They know each other better, both as people and players. They know who carries which strengths, and they are able to put egos aside and play to those strengths. In short, Black has been able to coach like he wants to, and the team has responded.

“Every time I step on the court (with this team) is a favorite moment,” junior shooting guard Johnnie Williams IV said, unable to edit the fun he’s had this year to one game or play. Williams IV, too, had a massive game against Riverview, scoring 32 points.  

If you think Booker is going to relax now that it has swept its rival, think again. Black isn’t the type to let his team get comfortable. There’s two things the team has preached since those summer boot camps: “Don’t be that guy,” or don’t let your careless mistakes be the reason Booker loses, and “lock in,” or give the game of basketball your whole focus on the court.

If they continue to practice those things they preach, Black thinks this team has what it takes to reach Lakeland and the Final Four. It helps that Curtis and fellow Riverview transfer Jeff Pedro, a senior, have been to Lakeland before, in 2015-2016. Sharing that experience might be what pushes the Tornadoes over the top. But before then, Black and his team are taking things one game at a time.

“We want to test our opponent’s mettle every night,” Black said. “We’ll see if you can hang.”


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